The Roads Taken: place, plot and process

By Brianna Goldberg

“I just started writing and writing until I had a 300 page blob,” said Andri Snær Magnason of his award-winning novel, LoveStar, “and then I started un-writing.” And it was this process of un-writing, revealing how authors discovered the narrative paths their stories have followed and all the many ones abandoned along the way, that was the focus of Saturday evening’s round table discussion, The Roads Taken.

Steven W. Beattie, Emma Donoghue, Andri Snær Magnason, Alix Ohlin and Cordelia Strube at IFOA 2012 ©

At the table was a varied bunch: Emma Donoghue, Irish-Canadian author of award-winning novels including Room and the new historical short fiction collection, Astray; Alix Ohlin, author of the Giller-nominated novel Inside, about a Montreal therapist and a man who attempts to hang himself, and a recent short story collection, Signs and Wonders; Magnason, the Icelandic renaissance man who has directed documentaries as well as written fiction (such as the above-mentioned LoveStar), non-fiction, plays, best-selling collections of poetry (yes, you read that correctly—best-selling poetry) and children’s books such as The Story of the Blue Planet; and Cordelia Strube, award-winning playwright and author of eight novels, including her latest, Milosz, about a friendship between a man and a young autistic boy.

With a group as diverse as the one gathered, and a topic as wide as the process of writing, demands on the moderator are great if the audience is to fully understand and engage in the conversation. Thankfully, Steven W. Beattie, writer, critic and reviews editor for Quill & Quire magazine, was at the helm, steering the conversation with confidence as well as a deep knowledge of each of the authors’ works.

Much of the evening’s talk emerged from the dichotomy of intuition versus structure at the beginning of a project. While Ohlin said she arrives at the realization of her stories “spastically, through intuition,” Donoghue admitted that if she followed her intuition alone she would be able to write no more than a one-page story. Strube described her desire to fully disappear into the world of the novel she creates, befriending the characters and totally living in their world for years at a time, and that this desire structures her whole approach to writing a story. Ohlin and Donoghue, though, said they enjoy the freedom of the short story format to take risks such as experimenting with new genres or bizarre constructs.

Ohlin also recounted advice she once received from an agent, suggesting she remove Canadian references that might make her work more difficult to market in the USA. She said that the stories this approach resulted in felt, to her, shallow and generic, and that she now prefers to feature details like the word “depanneur” in her work, as it is the challenge of using such culturally specific terms in an accessible and meaningful way that makes a story compelling.

Cordelia Strube added that she feels a responsibility to reflect such specific cultural details, believing it is the job of a writer to “document our time.” Donoghue, meanwhile, admitted that in writing she desires “the freedom to travel” to different eras and different geographies, which certainly opens access to a whole new set of roads to take.

Find out more about Goldberg on her website, or follow her on Twitter @b_goldberg.

The Back Story: where does writing begin?

By Janet Somerville

Yesterday The Walrus‘s Rachel Giese ably prompted The Back Story round table discussion that included Liza Klaussmann (Tigers in Red Weather), Donna Morrissey (The Deception of Livvy Higgs), Robin Sloan (Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore) and Russell Wangersky (Whirl Away).

The conversation began with each considering how place/home shapes their work. Referring specifically to Newfoundland, Wangersky said, “Everything seems large and it bleeds into all you do.” Morrissey suggested, “When I work, I write from a psychological perspective first. But, the geography shapes everything, including dialect.”

Wangersky, Klaussmann, Morrissey, Sloan and Giese at IFOA 2012 ©

Klaussmann seemed a Hemingway disciple when she noted, “Being away from places that I write about helps me imagine the place more deeply. Sloan remarked on the intentional book blurb that insists “he spends his time between San Francisco and the Internet. The Internet is a great city and I’m interested in how to dramatize that.”

Although P.D. James claims the first place she has to come to is setting, Wangersky insisted that for him a character’s voice is his beginning: “I hear something that makes me think and then build frames around it.” Klaussmann said “place acts on your characters,” and Morrissey wondered “if I’d chosen a different setting would the character’s struggle work out in a different way.” Sloan fixed his mind on the Internet, claiming “it has fraught pros and cons as any village graveyard.”

Giese asked if each had always been involved in artistic pursuits, plumbing early experiences and their childhoods. With scientist parents and engineer siblings, Wangersky the reader/dreamer was constantly the butt-end of family jokes. He recalled being a teenager and declaring “Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell and Margaret Atwood are old. When they die, I can take their place.”

Both Robin Sloan and Donna Morrissey recalled the world-building impulse of childhood. Sloan “drew maps of fancy kingdoms—folders full—with little stories inscribed along the edges,” while Morrissey used the natural world for creative inspiration: “I was always alone up in the woods. I’d create little towns running down the brook.” Klaussmann admitted, “My first book was a rip off of The Secret Garden.”

Referring to Henry James’s claim that “a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,” Wangersky chimed in, “I collect a lot of starting points.” Morrissey noted, “my challenge is writing features, so I’m always looking at faces, noticing a crooked tooth, or the way your eyebrows furrow.” Klaussmann said, “I don’t take notes. I trust in the subconscious, the way it churns raw material into something new, but true.” Sloan quipped, “It’s as if I’m listening to three other pole vaulters say ‘I don’t use the pole.'”

Giese closed the conversation with the provocative question, does art trump family? Klaussmann offered, “It’s a selfish profession. All writers are narcissistic.” Wangersky admitted, “I steal time from everyone, even sleep.”

Visit for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

The Future of the Novel: story is here to stay

By Vikki VanSickle

Saturday’s round table discussion, Zombies, Witches, Killers and Cowboys: Visions of the Future of the Novel, featured a group of authors from various genres with a wonderful natural chemistry. The scope of the discussion was large, touching on themes such as genre, love, the imagination and the writing process. The audience was very welcoming—and obviously full of Jo Nesbø fans.

Moderator Andrew Pyper kept the tone of the discussion light and fun. At one point Nesbø described storytelling as inviting people to your house; if they like it, they will come again. The event very much felt like we had been invited into a cozy collective living room. The discussion included a number of personal anecdotes and I’m sure if given the opportunity the audience would have stayed all afternoon to hear these mix of authors talk.

Andrew Pyper, Deborah Harkness, Alen Mattich, Jo Nesbø and Corey Redekop at IFOA 2012 ©

The question of genre and categorization was one of the more interesting and heated discussions. Genre writers often feel sidelined or undermined by the literati. According to Nesbø, crime fiction is respected and prestigious in Scandinavia, but this is not the case in North America or England, causing Pyper to surmise what a M.G. Vassanji or Anne Michaels crime novel would look like, to much laughter from the audience.

Redekop brought up the case of Margaret Atwood, who made her mark as a literary writer and poet before diving into genre fictions such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Redekop wondered if she had written these novels first, would she be considered “merely” a science fiction writer? Atwood herself refers to these novels as “speculative fiction,” which many sci-fi writers find evasive and suggest that in using this term Atwood herself is aware of (and avoiding) the stigma of genre writing.

Deborah Harkness and Alen Mattich talked about the constraints of genre. Harkness referred to genre as a weapon, used by critics and literary award committees to demean so-called genre writers and exclude them from the literary elite. She also talked about genre policing, in which readers and critics are quick to exclude titles based on an arbitrary set of rules or perceived notions about genres.

Harkness is a historian and a professor and talked about the snobbery of her own colleagues, who assumed she would write her fiction (which features witches and vampires) under a pseudonym. Mattich agreed that in North American and British literary circles there is some derision of genre fiction, but he felt that the constraints of genre fiction benefit the writer. With no constraints, Mattich believes it would be harder to succeed. The framework provided by these categories, as arbitrary as they may be, allows the author a framework to push against or an opportunity to test the boundaries and perhaps come up with something fresh and new.

There was some discussion as to why we categorize. Harkness believes the categorizations exist only for the reader, and Redekop confessed that as a librarian, categories are are a useful tool when readers are seeking something to read.

Nesbø pointed out that genre is all about expectation. When a reader picks up a crime novel or a paranormal romance, they expect certain conventions. Like Mattich, he felt that these expectations make it easier to frame a story. So what of the cross-over novel, that holy grail sought by publishers, which seems to defy genre or categorization? The panel agreed that to write for the masses, or seek something as elusive as the cross-over novel, would endanger the story. As Nesbo says, don’t go to the people, invite them to come to you.

As for the future of the novel? The group steered away from discussion of format (re: e-books) and instead focused on content and what readers want. The panelists all agreed that story is here to stay. As Mattich says, people don’t like random events or information. We like a story to explain things.

Redekop took this one step further, suggesting that we are genetically predisposed to create stories in order to understand the world around us. Nesbø suggested that some of the most interesting writing is not in the novel, but in other formats, pointing to cable TV and shows such as Mad Men. He believes that in the future readers will want to be challenged, and that writers of all forms and genres should be ready for a world of intelligent readers.

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

Miéville & Doctorow: from Dungeons and Dragons to politics and writing

By Corina Milic

The night started with a few bad jokes and ended with a debate on human nature (consensus: good, though invariably more time was spent talking about the evil).

The Lakeside Terrace was packed for a joint reading and interview with Cory Doctorow (The Rapture of the Nerds) and China Miéville (Embassytown). The SPACE channel’s Mark Askwith hosted.

The authors are similar in some essential ways: both live in London, and both approach science fiction quite politically.

Doctorow read from his new novel Pirate Cinema and reminisced about growing up in Toronto: “I played Dungeons and Dragons here [Harbourfront Centre] on alternating Saturdays for most of the 1980s.” He credits the city, with sci-fi institutions like Bakka Phoenix book store and the Judith Merril Library, for his pursuit of genre fiction.

Cory Doctorow and China Miéville in conversation with Mark Askwith at IFOA 2012 (c)

Cory Doctorow and China Miéville in conversation with Mark Askwith at IFOA 2012 (c)

Miéville, who treated fans to an unpublished short story reading, said that he simply never grew out of his fantastical childhood imagination. “As a writer I can sustain almost nothing that doesn’t have a fantastic element.”

To say the conversation was far reaching is an understatement. The authors talked about everything from copyright laws (Doctorow’s activism centres largely around the issue) to blog anxiety to waterboarding to Hurrican Katrina and Cormac McCarthy. They even threw in a requisite trekkie reference.

It is impossible to synthesize Doctorow’s jaw-dropping on-the-spot metaphors or Miéville’s eloquent arguments (both full of rather large words this blogger was ill-equipped to successfully transcribe). Instead, here are some of the highlights:

Miéville, on structuring his novels: “My books are very planned, in part because I’m very neurotic. The idea of starting a book without knowing where you’re going, oooo, hives!”

Doctorow, on good writing advice: “’Write everyday’ crops up as writing advice all the time. What was revelatory to me was that when I did this, writing every day, I saw in hindsight that the days I felt the words were good and the days I thought they were bad were actually indistinguishable.”

Doctorow, on why he blogs his daily writing: “If I don’t put [the words] out for public consumption, I cheat myself. I won’t do it.”

Miéville, on the relationship between his politics and his writing: “I have been an active socialist since I was 18. I see the world politically, but I also see the world as a D and D* geek. Anything I write involves political issues. It’s not like separate boxes in my head.”

Miéville, on the idea of crisis: “In a very banal way crisis is aesthetically interesting, but it’s not an aesthetic indulgence. Things really are fucked. I’m not a pessimist. One of the great blunders is [believing] that people are horrible.”

Doctorow, on writing young adult novels: “YA protagonists do a very brave thing all the time. They do a lot of things for the first time without knowing how these things will change them. It makes them really exciting to write about.”

Miéville, on writing young adult novels: “What he said.”

*Dungeons and Dragons

Learn more about Milic’s attempts to read every book in her home on her blog. Visit for more IFOA events.

Intellectual companionship at IFOA

By Janet Somerville

The crowd gathered in the Brigantine Room on Friday night accompanied first by Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and then Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” piping through the sound system. From where I sat I could hear Richard Ford’s irresistible Southern drawl trickling under both songs, a few tables away, a distinct rhythm of its own.

Hosted by CBC’s Jeff Douglas, the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction Spotlight began with its founder Noreen Taylor praising Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary—the most recent recipient of the prize—as a book “that defines the borders of what’s acceptable and not acceptable about humanity” and thanking IFOA Director Geoffrey E. Taylor for understanding that “nonfiction deserves a place on the podium.”

Andrew was the first of the authors to take the stage, marvelling that “10 years ago I came to IFOA to hear a writer I idolized and wanted to follow: Richard Ford.” That he was sharing the evening on the same bill with Ford seemed to fill him with wonder. Explaining that his book was “a Canadian story of resilience and recovery,” Westoll continued that one of the marvels of being named the Charles Taylor Prize winner was the previously unimagined doors that it opened for him as a scientist and a writer.

Perhaps the most charming moment of the evening belonged to him as he recalled an evening where he introduced Dr. Jane Goodall to an audience of 1,000 at the University of Toronto and she dragged him to the mic and insisted “let’s test Andrew on his knowledge of chimpanzee behaviour,” after which “this Dame of the British Empire told me to pat her on the head.” And simulated simian hell broke loose.

Perhaps America’s finest contemporary social satirist and certainly a celebrated man of letters, Richard Ford called IFOA “the gold standard of literary festivals. It’s a real treat, and slightly daunting to meet young writers, but also so encouraging.” He read from Canada, his voice dropping, masterfully controlling the pacing, parsing each line as if it were a poem. To hear him read from his own work is to be invited into a trust, an intimacy, and to facing one of the essential questions that his novel poses: Isn’t this a way of making sense of a life?

Stuart Clark, author of The Sensorium of God, who also writes for the European Space Agency, introduced his historically-grounded novel by referring to the “grand tradition of using narrative to discuss grand ideas and science” as Galileo did. In his book the ideas of astronomer Edmond Halley, a spy for the British monarchy, a “shadowy figure in Cambridge, Isaac Newton, who was practising the dark art of alchemy” and experimentalist Robert Hooke all intertwine as “science is born of hot passion, rivalry and intrigue” in the late 17th century. Wisely, Clark noted, “there are always those who will never understand.”

It was a pleasure, indeed, to bask in the intellectual companionship of these three fine men. If only for an hour, one rainy Toronto evening, we inched closer to understanding.

Visit for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.
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